Wynne Prize traces Australia’ shifting relationship to our landscape

For over a century, the Wynne Prize has served as a significant barometer of Australia’s evolving relationship with its landscape. Established in 1897 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, this prestigious award celebrates the country’s natural beauty through art, while simultaneously reflecting the changing attitudes, perceptions, and connections Australians have with their environment. Through the lens of the Wynne Prize, we can trace a fascinating journey of Australia’s shifting relationship with its landscape, from colonial exploitation to environmental consciousness and Indigenous perspectives.

The early years of the Wynne Prize coincided with Australia’s colonization and the dominance of European artistic traditions. Paintings submitted during this period often depicted the landscape as a vast, untouched wilderness ripe for exploitation and conquest. Artists portrayed scenes of rugged beauty, majestic mountains, and untamed wilderness, reinforcing the colonial narrative of terra nullius – the idea that the land was empty and belonged to no one prior to European settlement. Paintings such as Arthur Streeton’s “Fire’s On” (1891) captured the raw energy of the Australian bush, yet they also perpetuated a romanticized view of the landscape divorced from its Indigenous custodians.

As the 20th century progressed, so too did Australia’s awareness of its environmental heritage. The post-war period saw a growing interest in conservation and the preservation of natural landscapes. This shift was reflected in the Wynne Prize submissions, with artists increasingly portraying the landscape not merely as a resource to be exploited but as a fragile ecosystem deserving of protection. Works like Hans Heysen’s “Gum Trees” (1916) celebrated the unique beauty of the Australian flora, while also raising awareness of the need to safeguard it for future generations.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a profound transformation in Australia’s relationship with its landscape, spurred by growing environmental activism and a burgeoning appreciation for Indigenous knowledge and culture. This period saw the emergence of the environmental art movement, with artists using their work to critique industrialization, urbanization, and the degradation of the natural environment. Paintings like Fred Williams’ “Upwey Landscape” (1965) captured the beauty of the Australian bush while also drawing attention to the impact of human intervention.

At the same time, there was a growing recognition of Indigenous perspectives on the landscape, challenging the colonial notion of terra nullius and acknowledging the deep spiritual and cultural connections Indigenous Australians have with the land. Indigenous artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye brought their unique perspectives to the Wynne Prize, infusing their works with ancestral stories, Dreamtime narratives, and a profound reverence for the land. Pieces like Rover Thomas’ “Cyclone Tracy” (1991) and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s “Alhalkere – Big Yam Dreaming” (1995) served as powerful reminders of the enduring presence of Indigenous cultures and their intimate relationship with the Australian landscape.

In recent years, the Wynne Prize has continued to evolve, reflecting contemporary concerns about climate change, sustainability, and the need for ecological stewardship. Artists are increasingly exploring innovative ways to engage with the landscape, incorporating new technologies, materials, and perspectives into their work. Installations, multimedia presentations, and site-specific artworks are becoming increasingly common, challenging traditional notions of what constitutes landscape art and inviting viewers to reconsider their relationship with the environment.

In conclusion, the Wynne Prize provides a fascinating window into Australia’s changing relationship with its landscape over the past 125 years. From the colonial exploitation of the wilderness to the contemporary embrace of environmental consciousness and Indigenous perspectives, the artworks submitted for the Wynne Prize reflect the evolving attitudes, values, and aspirations of Australian society. As we look to the future, the Wynne Prize will continue to serve as a platform for artists to engage with and reflect upon our relationship with the land, inspiring dialogue, reflection, and action for generations to come.

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